Thursday, October 12, 2006

Stratification of Knowledge and Soul Food

If one considers knowledge as "information possessed" and accepts that this knowledge has different natures and qualities, one can stratify it, i.e. create a spectrum/scale along these qualities.

Education and experience continue to build knowledge. One scale or dimension involves volume. Going from knowing the capitals of 25 states to all 50 moves one along a volume vector, knowing more of the same kind of stuff. Advancing along the volume vector feels like memorization, an expansion of information committed to memory.

Another knowledge dimension, very different from volume/quantity of information, is sophistication. Consider the path of learning mathematics, which starts with literal numbers (1,2,3) and the four operations, then variables and algebraic expressions and equations, functions and properties of functions, linear spaces and linear algebra and stuff like eigenvalues and eigenvectors, analysis (continuity, differentiation, integration), topology, the "real algebra" (groups, rings and fields), complex analysis, differential equations, and so on.

Advancing along the sophistication vector feels like an expansion of understanding. The nature of the growth is different. Sure, we memorize our times table and certain facts, but one cannot walk this path by memorizing. Here, each step is an advancement of understanding, and progress stops until the next step is understood. This path is closed to those who will not persevere to understand each successive idea, the next, then the next, and it keeps going. One understands more and more, and the nature of what is understood, the knowledge, increases in sophistication.

I assert there is another dimension, another stratification of knowledge based on a quality I will call granularity. This is very distinct from sophistication. At one end of the granularity spectrum is “coarse” knowledge, nuts and bolts, meat and potato stuff to know like how to change a tire, add two and two, even balance a chemical equation or a checkbook. The steps are concrete. The "coarser" units of knowledge are easily grasped with thoughts. Fancy computers could probably be programmed to handle a lot of it.

But what does it mean to move to "finer" units of knowledge? Well, what is the knowledge that one gains experiencing a four day backpack in the Grand Canyon? What is the knowledge one gains after 15 years of marriage? What knowledge develops in a person who serves in a hospice, being the one there with that final hand squeeze or hand on the shoulder or arm, so the patient is not alone at the moment of death? What does that person "know"?

Movement along this vector rapidly extinguishes what is available with language, so I will jump to the punch line and say that there is knowledge desired by the soul. It is a finer substance, and moves from solid to liquid to vapor. We start to use words like insight and wisdom, and we get the sense that what we mean by intelligence just does not cut it here. We are talking about Something Else, and those that TRULY advance far down this path become almost "other wordly" in a certain sense, or we at least recognize that something is fundamentally advanced about what they have become as human beings. Anyone reading this think they have what the Dalai Lama has acquired over the years?

What is the finer stuff? The notion of spiritual truths, of insights into the human condition, of a certain hunger we feel for a certain knowledge that seems as elusive as stardust, but we crave it, and we turn to our spiritual leaders for sustenance.

For now, to keep things simple, let's say that our religions deliver spiritual sustenance. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, all provide means for addressing our hunger. When it works, what we take from the church, synagogue, or temple, is an expansion of some divine insight that nourishes the soul. The light is shining and can brighten an onlooking soul through many colors of glasses.

When a group of friends go out to dinner and we’re all hungry and eager to eat, one guy might order a steak, another a salad, another fish and chips, a pasta salad, and everyone enjoys the meal. Everyone eats what they want and gets fed!!. All obtain nourishment and none walk away hungry.

We don’t start killing each other for selecting different items from the menu.

How ironic that our maturity with respect to feeding our stomachs has progressed infinitely beyond our maturity with respect to feeding our souls.

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